How June 16 has lost its meaning

SACRIFICE: People at the 2011 Youth Day rally at Orlando Stadium with the poster of the first victim of the June 16 massacre, Hector Pieterson. President Jacob Zuma and then ANC Youth League president Julius Malema arrived at an almost empty stadium - four hours late. The crowd had gone home. Photo: HALDEN KROG
SACRIFICE: People at the 2011 Youth Day rally at Orlando Stadium with the poster of the first victim of the June 16 massacre, Hector Pieterson. President Jacob Zuma and then ANC Youth League president Julius Malema arrived at an almost empty stadium - four hours late. The crowd had gone home. Photo: HALDEN KROG

AS WE MARK the 36th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising and 18 years since the advent of democracy in South Africa, we should ask: does June 16 still carry meaning for our youth?

There is no better way to reflect on this question than to assess the state of the youth in the economy, politics and social affairs today.

We will, in the future, reflect on the youth in politics and social affairs. Today we focus on the youth and economy. We need to refresh our memories about what was at the centre of that fateful morning of June 16 1976. It was a protest against apartheid and Afrikaans as medium of instruction in schools and it was fundamentally about quality education for all.

June 16 was a protest by the youth against the system of Bantu Education, which sought to perpetuate the oppression of blacks by whites. It was a revolt against Hendrik Verwoerd's philosophy that sought to preserve white privileges by condemning blacks to being "hewers of wood and drawers of water".

In Verwoerd's view blacks were to serve only as a labour reservoir for whites. So 1976 was fundamentally about the demand for quality education - the kind that would propel the youth into the mainstream economy.

This was the dream that the generation of 1976 refused to defer.

The power of education in the development of nations and people is understood all over the world and Verwoerd was aware of this.

While education is a catalyst of development, the absence of it or its poor quality can curtail the development of a nation and her people. So there is a symbiotic relationship between the participation of the youth in the economy and the education system.

What then is the state of the youth in the economy?

It is appalling. It is characterised by poor education and high unemployment, despite the government prioritising education.

From expenditure on education to access, quantitative improvements are there for everyone to see. Unfortunately, education budgets on their own are not indicators of the quality of education. Had they been, South Africa would have been among the best in the world.

For example, the budget on education has increased by more than 551% between 1994 and 2012, from R31.8bn to R207bn.

But these increases have not been accompanied by an improvement in the quality of education. The return on investment in education is ridiculously low.

Consider, for example, the disparity between enrolments in our schooling system and outputs. Of the 1,440,000 children who enrolled in grade 1 in 1998, only 552,072 managed to get to grade 12 in 2009. Only 334,745 of them passed, and only 109,706 passed with university endorsement.

This means that only 7.8% of the learners who enter the schooling system make it to university. Therein lies the question: where are the million learners who did not make it to matric?

Could it be that they will or have become the "hewers of wood and drawers of water" that Hendrik Verwoerd envisaged?

In higher education statistics on enrolment and throughput are disheartening. In 2002, 131,000 students enrolled for their first degree. Only 46,200 passed while 20,600 were still struggling to complete their studies in 2008. More than 71,200 dropped out; more than half (52%) the class of 2002.

According to the National Planning Commission more than 40% of young people under the age of 30 are unemployed. More than 72% of the unemployed are young people between 15 and 24.

The failure of the government to arrest the collapse of education in Eastern Cape, Limpopo and elsewhere only serves to perpetuate the legacy of apartheid. It reduces June 16 to a meaningless annual ritual.

The impasse on the interventions in Eastern Cape and recently in Limpopo paints a picture of a leadership that is complicit in maiming the future of the youth.

Until we address the crisis of education, June 16 will have no meaning for most young people.

  • Malada is a researcher at the Forum for Public Dialogue. He is also a member of the Midrand Group
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